Most of the time at work, if you have a problem with someone, you can ignore it and still get your work done. Sometimes, though, you have to have a conversation with that person and get something straightened out. It might be differing opinions on some part of the project you’re working on, or an interpersonal problem, but either way, in order to get back to the fascinating programming problem you’re trying to solve, you have to have a talk with the other person.

A technique you can steal from mediators: opening statements

Mediators have a technique for starting problem-solving discussions so they’re effective and shorter than they would be otherwise. At the start of a mediation, each person gets to tell the mediator, who’s an impartial facilitator, his or her perspective on the issue that’s brought them to mediation. This is called making an opening statement.

Why opening statements work

Making opening statements helps people resolve problems because everybody gets a chance to tell their perspective on the situation without being interrupted or contradicted. What’s more, everybody gets a chance to listen to the other person’s perspective without that other person speaking directly to them, which can feel like an attack. So people feel satisfied and confident, which makes a good start to a mediation.

How to do this for yourself

Here’s how you can use this technique to help yourself, even if you don’t have a mediator there to listen to the opening statements.

Flip a coin to decide who goes first. Call that person, Person 1.

Person 1 will explain their perspective on the problem. Obviously, you don’t have a mediator, so Person 1 pretends that Person 2 is the mediator. To do this, Person 1 thinks of a particular person to whom they’d describe the situation neutrally and fairly. While explaining their perspective on the problem, Person 1 pretends that Person 2 is that particular person. Person 2 thinks of particular person who they know is neutral and fair; while Person 1 is speaking, Person 2 pretends that Person 1 is their particular person.

When Person 1 is finished with the opening statement, you switch roles.

You could think of this technique as being similar to rubber duck debugging.

Then solve the problem

By the time you finish your opening statements, each of you will have the satisfaction of being able to get something off your chest, so to speak. And each of you will have heard the other person’s perspective in a way that won’t sound like they’re attacking you, so you can understand them better and work more effectively towards a solution. And then get back to your work solving the fascinating programming problem.

Bonus: how to do this if you have more than two people

The ordinary explanation

This technique works for more than two people. You could have each person give their opening statement to the person on their left.

The geeky explanation

Or, more formally, here’s how you work it with N people, where N > 2. For each person j, 1 <= j <= N, and a fixed k, 1 <= k < N, Person j pretends that Person ((j + k) mod N) + 1 is the mediator. In fact, for N > 4, everyone can pretend that the entire group is the mediator.

The time required for this is, of course, O(n), even if the group does a second round in which people say a few more things they were reminded of while listening to everyone else.

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